This is the Artest the Lakers need
BOSTON -- Nineteen months ago, Kobe Bryant found himself in the cramped showers of the visiting locker room in TD Garden, literally steaming after the Lakers lost Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals by 39 points. As the story goes, he was then met by Ron Artest, who walked up to Bryant and told him he wanted to come to Los Angeles and help Bryant win a championship.
On Sunday, Bryant and Artest were back at the scene of that encounter for the first time as teammates. This time Bryant mockingly hummed Boson's unofficial anthem, "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" by Dropkick Murphys, over and over again as he dried off, while Artest smiled as he iced his feet and dissected his impact on a team that has now won its past three games against the Celtics since the Game 6 loss.
"I feel I played good offensively and defensively," Artest said. "Even if I had two points and I played hard I feel like I played a good game, but people don't understand that. It's a stat era, but tonight I feel like I played a good game."
Artest's stat line certainly won't make anyone forget about Trevor Ariza (11 points on 4-for-12 shooting), but his presence at the beginning and at the end of the game were exactly why the Lakers signed him in the offseason.
This was the get-under-your-skin enforcer they had heard about but until now had only been seen in old highlights. Artest didn't even wait until the game started to get under the Celtics' skin. Before the opening tip he was jostling for position with Paul Pierce, and the two had to be separated by an official.
"I was in my position and he tried to put his leg over my position," Artest said. "If you're not strong enough, you shouldn't be fighting with me. If you can't match my strength then why would you try to pick a fight and test me? I was on the white line and you cannot cross my line and I'm so stubborn you know I'm not going to let you get away with that."
About a minute later Artest knocked Kevin Garnett to the ground as Garnett was running to the paint and was called for a foul. As the crowd yelled and screamed, expecting an altercation, Garnett, who notoriously likes to bully smaller players, simply got up and didn't respond.
"I didn't knock KG down," said Artest, shaking his head. "I can't knock him down."
As Artest tried to defend himself he called for someone to bring him a roster of both teams so he could compare his listed height and weight (6-foot-7, 260 pounds) with Garnett's (6-11, 253). After being reminded that he was physically capable of knocking Garnett down and in fact did, he stopped arguing the point.
"I didn't hit him; I just stood there," said Artest, who was called for two fouls four minutes into the game before being replaced. "That's what I like to do. I like to stand there. I sometimes do that against Shaq, which isn't smart. It's not just me. When they were testing Pau, he handled his own and handled himself."
The Lakers, much like Artest, were basically nonexistent after taking a 30-17 lead in the first quarter, falling behind by as many as 11 points with nine minutes left. In the final minute, however, Artest came to life, hitting a runner in the lane to pull the Lakers to within 89-88. He then drew an offensive foul while guarding Pierce, dramatically flailing past the backboard and negating the basket. The back-to-back plays on offense and defense set up Bryant for his game-winning basket.
"I'm not going to toot my own horn; I'm going to let other people judge me," Artest said. "I know I gave 100 percent, and that's it. Did [Pierce] push me [on the play]? That's the referee's call. I was trying to get over the screen and I got a little shove, and that momentum carried me out of bounds."
While the Lakers won't win any backyard brawls any time soon, in Artest they now have someone who can lead the charge if someone does want to test them. His toughness has rubbed off on Gasol, who stepped up to Rasheed Wallace after being shoved in the first half, and Andrew Bynum, who muscled his way to 19 points and 11 rebounds.
"Right off the bat we knew they were going to challenge us," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "That's the reputation our bigs have gotten so far, and they've deserved it so far, and now they have to stand up to it."
On Sunday, with the help of Artest, the Lakers may have finally vanquished the "soft" stigma that still lingers over their heads whenever they return to the Garden and are reminded of what happened to them nearly two years ago. It's a perception, however, that is quickly becoming as outdated as the 2008 NBA Finals montage the Celtics played before the game.
"We don't have to prove anything anymore," Gasol said. "C'mon, now; we're a championship team. We should start changing the subject and talking about something meaningful."Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.